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Composting is easy to do and will add incredible nutrients to your soil. Gardening with compost will increase flower and plant production, and give you a place to put organic waste such as table scraps and yard debris.
The act of composting is the controlled decomposition of organic materials by microorganisms. This can occur naturally of course but for gardening purposes it is called composting. Compost is used as a fertilizer, mulch, or as a potting soil mix and its benefits include:
* Helps to return organic materials to your soil.
* Helps to buffer your soil from chemical imbalances.
* Will help to support living soil organisms.
* Increases the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients.
* Improves the tilth of your soil (tilth is the condition and fluffiness of the soil so plant roots can grow easily).
* Helps buffer the soil from chemical imbalances.
* Can help control some soil pest.
What Makes Composting Work
Your flowers and plants thrive with compost because it is full of living microorganisms. These organisms digest materials through metabolic activity (eating it) and turn that into living matter with nutrients and other benefits for your plants.
The 6 Key Components of Composting:
To foster proper composting you need to create an environment that is microorganism friendly. The key parts to this are:
- Pile Temperatures
- Particle Size
- Ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen
Moisture is important to microbes thriving and working faster. The ideal moisture levels should be between 40-60%. You can tell it’s right if the compost feels wet but water can’t be squeezed out of it (like a damp wash rag).
You may need to add water occasionally to your compost pile to keep it at the best moisture levels. This is especially true during dry hot spells or when you are adding more compost and when turning the pile.
The reasons for not having too much moisture in the compost is that it will compact and restrict airflow through your pile. Since the microbes are living organisms, oxygen is important for the composting activity. If the compost is too wet turn the pile to help dry it some and add oxygen.
 Aeration (oxygen):
These are living organisms and they need oxygen to do their job. If there is a lack of oxygen the composting (degradation) process will slow down and your pile will have a foul odor to it.
Microbes reproduce very quickly if conditions are right and they deplete oxygen levels rapidly as a result. This is the reason you will want to aerate your compost pile by turning it on a regular basis.
Turning compost is as simple as taking a shovel, rake or pitch fork and literally turning the pile over a few times. Another way is to take a pole of some type and ramming it through the pile to create air tunnels.
 Pile Temperature:
The temperature of your compost pile is a result of the biological activity occurring inside as well as exposure to the sun. This is a good sign the microbes are working hard through their metabolism, reproduction, and turning the compost materials into energy.
Composting occurs at all temperature levels but hotter is usually better. In the beginning, or when adding substantial new compost, it’s a good idea to get your compost pile to a temperature of 131 degrees F for 3 days to help kill weed seeds and plant pathogens. You can buy composting thermometers to measure compost pile temperatures.
 Particle Size:
By breaking your compost up into smaller pieces there are many more surfaces available for the microbes to work on. On the other hand, you can make your materials too small (like sawdust for example). If the materials are too small aeration is substantially decreased through clumping and compacting. This results in very slow composting activity and bad odors.
 Ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen:
All plant matter contains a mixture of carbon and nitrogen and this matter will eventually compost over time. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen affects the speed of this process. The ideal ratio is 30 to 1 (30 parts carbon – 1 part nitrogen).
The basic way to look at ratios of compost is to view them as green materials versus brown materials. Green materials contain much higher nitrogen levels than brown materials. As a result the greener the material the faster it will generally compost.
Grass (green material) for example has much higher nitrogen levels than wood chips (brown material). Some of the following examples show various carbon to nitrogen ratio levels:
- Grass Clippings = 20:1
- Peat Moss = 58:1
- Sawdust = 600:1
- Table Scraps = 15:1
- Fruit Waste = 35:1
- Coffee Grounds = 20:1
- Rotted Manure = 20:1
Over the course of a season you’ll end up with good compost materials for your garden but you need to be patient. The microbes will go to work immediately after you start building the compost pile.
Methods of Composting
There is more than one way to compost including finding natural compost in the woods. The 2 basic man-made types of composting are:
- Cold / Slow Composting
- Hot / Fast Composting
 Cold / Slow Composting: This composting process is slower than the heat method described below. It is typically done when more brown materials are available or used for your compost pile. This method’s advantages are:
- Easier to start
- Less maintenance to keep it going
A couple of the disadvantages are:
- Slow composting rate
- Pest can invade buried waste
- Weed seed or plant pathogens can thrive
There are 4 basic methods of Cold / Slow Composting.
Heap Composting – This is basically where you create a pile anywhere in your yard or the woods. It is easy to do by just choosing an area and continue to dump matter there whenever it is collected and discarded.
Cold Bin Composting – This is a more controlled method than simply heaping into a pile somewhere. You can use a barrel or can with plenty of hole for aeration or create a bin with wire or mesh. If you throw in table scraps you should cover them with other compost materials to hide from the scraps from pest.
Trench Composting – This is a more direct method of composting. You dig a trench about 8 inches deep in your garden. Put in 4-5 inches of table scraps and backfill with your soil. After a few months the scrap materials will have decomposed enough to plant right above the compost trench. An ancient method for doing this is to bury fish scraps underneath where plants and flowers are to be planted.
Sheet Composting – This is the simplest method because you just spread the compost materials around our plants where they are. As the matter decomposes it releases nutrients to the ground and filters to your plants root systems. The composting rate is slow and you can’t use table scraps or pest will be digging your garden up.
Earthworms – Earthworms are great for composting especially if you are putting in lots of table scraps into your compost pile.
 Hot Fast Composting: Like cold composting, this method can be done with or without the use of a bin. It is simply a collection of highly compostable green materials piled together. The best combination of elements for Hot Composting are:
- A blend of green and brown materials
- Proper moisture content
- Proper aeration
- Cut the matter into small pieces
- Turn the Pile regularly
Build a Compost Pile:
This is how you create the good stuff for the plants and flowers in your garden. Following are some general steps to follow in creating a compost pile on your property:
Location for Compost Pile – This can go about wherever you want but should be at least 2 feet away from any structures. Other tips include:
* Make it easy to get to or you won’t use it.
* Make sure the ground is level.
* A well draining soil location is important as well.
* Try to out close to some type of tree or structure (2 ft. space) to block wind which can dry out your pile.
* Shade if you are in a dry, hot climate to keep it from drying out in the sun and heat.
Compost Bin – This is a luxury because your pile can just be on the ground. It does make it more controllable however if you build a bin. Some things to consider:
* A compost bin can keep the neighborhood dogs out of the pile (especially if you are putting kitchen scraps into it).
* Other Pest – There are more to worry about than dogs, other varmints will pilfer off this pile as well.
* Make sure the bin is easy to get into so you’ll use it.
* It’s easier to control when you are turning the pile; it keeps it in its place.
* The appearance of a bin is better than a loose pile.
Material Preparation – This is not a mandatory step but it helps to speed up the composting process. There are all sorts of things you can add to the pile to get it going good. Some of the better starting materials are:
- Animal waste
- Vegetative materials
- Chopping materials at first for easy composting
Organic fertilizer (the extra nitrogen will help the pile to compost faster).
Building the Compost Pile – This is where you actually start to throw it together. Here are the crucial components for a good compost pile:
- Carbon & nitrogen materials
1- Wet the ground under where the pile will go to help keep the soil from taking the moisture away from your compost.
2- Put sticks in the bottom of the bin for aeration.
3- Add nitrogen and carbon materials in alternate layers along with water (up to 50% of the compost weight should be water).
Cover on your Pile / Bin – This can keep critters out and help keep moisture in.
Routine Check of the Pile – Mother Nature will most likely take care of your compost but checking is a good idea if you are up to it. You’ll check for heat with a compost thermometer and make sure it’s between120-160 degrees. If your pile is not hot, add more nitrogen to the compost.
Also, check your moisture levels. When you turn the pile it should feel heavy like it’s 50% water. If not, add water.
Turning the Compost Pile – This means to stir it up because turning the pile allows all the material to be exposed to the hot center and this also increases aeration.